• Carl Battreall

Tips From The Analog Darkroom

When I walk into Costco and see the huge 4K televisions, I am not impressed. I think the images they produce look plastic, overly sharp and manufactured. 6K looks even worse. This is partly generational. Many of us photographers and filmmakers who grew up in an analog world aren’t as enamored with the whole digital look as those who have never known anything different, like my 14-year-old son. I feel the same about still photography, especially color, which is often over sharpened, over saturated, and overly manipulated.

I will admit that is has been awhile since I stepped into a “wet” darkroom. However, I still use many of the techniques from the darkroom when I process and print my digital photographs. One of the complaints I hear from those who still prefer traditionally printed photographs is that digital prints look “fake” or manufactured. To many, digital prints lack an organic look or feel.

I believe that most of the issues come from how we approach our digital processing and printing. Below are a few ideas that you could consider when processing and printing your images.

1. Make prints. What I mean is, the final output is the print, so quit trying to match exactly what you see on your monitor. Once the print is spit out of your printer, don’t take it straight to the monitor. Instead, don’t look at the monitor at all. Take the print to an appropriate light source and study it. Brew up some tea, sit back and look at it.

2. Make corrections on the print itself. Break out the Sharpie and mark up the print. Circle areas that you think should be darker or lighter.

3. Quit being so precise. Photography editing programs, especially Photoshop, allow us to select areas with precision. The reality is, the world isn’t so precise, and it is obvious, especially in landscape and nature photography, when a photographer is trying to perfectly select elements to lighten and darken. It simply looks unnatural because light reflects and spills onto a scene. Use the brush tool (I use Lightroom for all my editing) with a large feather. For an even broader stroke, the use the gradient tool. Use editing tools like a painter would, not like a surgeon.

4. Don’t be afraid of the dark. Let dark zones go black. Embrace the graphic elements of photography. Deep, rich blacks in a print add mystery and beauty. Our own vision can’t see details in both bright light and dark shadows at the same time. When I must choose between detail in highlight or shadows, I prefer having details in the highlights and let the shadows go black.

5. Back off on sharpening. Over sharpening might be the worse sin of digital photography. It is easy to over sharpen. We sharpen for capture, then during processing and finally when outputting for printing. It all adds up and can lead to some ugly looking prints. We need to remember that there are few natural things in our world that are razor sharp, most things are far from it.

6. Sharpen locally. This is a great chance to take advantage of the digital darkroom. Use the brush tool to sharpen aspects that need sharpening. Don’t sharpen things that aren’t sharp in the first place, like clouds or moving water. And don’t try and sharpen part of an image that isn’t in focus.

7. Print on fiber-cotton based paper.

Our eyesight sucks. What I think makes those 4 and 6K television look unnatural to me is that they are sharper than our own eyesight. If we were physically at the scene that is on the screen, it would not look nearly as razor sharp and precise.

There some techniques other photographers use, that I don’t use, like adding artificial grain to an image, to help their image look more organic. However, there is one technique that drives me crazy and that is the darkening of the edges.

Many of the photographers who claim that they do it because that is what the “masters” did, have probably never printed in a traditional darkroom. It is true that edge burning was common, but it was used to correct an issue, not to create a specific look. The issue was that the enlarger wouldn’t evenly illuminate the negative, light would “fall off” the edges, making them lighter than the rest of the image. There were a few ways around this issue. The best solution was to use an enlarger designed for negatives larger than the negative you were using. If you used medium format negatives, you would use a large format enlarger, that would insure even illumination. However, the issue came mainly with large format negatives. If you used an 8x10 negative, well, you were mainly stuck using an 8x10 enlarger and fall off was going to happen. Then you would need to burn the edges to make an even looking print. When I used an 8x10, I only made contact prints, which also solved the uneven lighting issues.

Funny thing is, you would never even know if an image was “burned in” on the edges. There is only one image I am aware of in Ansel Adam’s entire body of work (I am using Ansel simply because when most photographers use the term “master” they are speaking of him) that edge burning is noticeable and that image is “Dogwood Blossoms” from Portfolio Three. The issue he was trying to correct was with the negative itself, I don’t remember exactly what is was, I think it is was a possible light leak. So, I am not sure why photographers think they need to darken the edges, creating a vignette look, that is not what the master did. Special effects, like vignettes should be done with purpose. If your trying to drive the viewers attention to the center of an image, then create a vignette, that is what that technique is useful for.

Ok, sorry about the edge burning rant! As I always say, do what you want. It is your work. If you find something valuable from this post, awesome, if not, that’s fine too.